Our long-lost correspondent, Nick Willard (“The Lion in Winter” himself), wrote to us the other day with a brief feuilleton. Willard has been reading “Swan’s Way”—that’s right, one “n”—a book about the author’s search to uncover Charles Haas, the real-life inspiration behind Marcel Proust’s infamous dandy character, Charles Swann.
Haas, faithful myrmidons may recall between sips of armagnac, was a wealthy French Jewish socialite and Jockey Club member who lived through some of dandyism’s greatest (and not-so-great) eras. Born in 1833, Haas flâneured through the 19th century, attending literary salons and befriending fellow club men like Robert de Montesquiou. He even appears in Tissot’s famous 1868 painting The Circle of the Rue Royale, the upright figure on the far right of the picture.
Old Nick forwards the following anecdote about Haas from “Swan’s Way” by Henri Raczymow:
One day [Haas] found himself in the company of an English ambassador. For better or worse, he attempted to converse with the man about politics. The ambassador was looking attentively at Haas, which Haas of course found quite flattering. But after a few moments he realized that it wasn’t his words that he was paying such close attention to. No, it was his left shoulder. Haas first thought that there was a stain on his suit. And he asked the Englishman about it. But it was nothing of the sort. What the ambassador had been examining so intently was a small gold pin on his vest to which his pince-nez was attached. He preferred that to a ribbon around his neck. “Now there’s an idea,” said the ambassador. “I’m going to introduce it in London.” Charles Haas told this grand story, which naturally filled him with pride, to Gaston Jollivet. Jolivet repeated it in his “Souvenirs de la vie de plaisir sous le Second Empire” (1927).
And that, dear reader, is how to set a trend.